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It sure seems like the same old 'Idol'

Ann Powers
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

It always happens. The striver who intrigues me the most on any given audition episode of "American Idol" just sneaks in, earning a few minutes of screen time, probably at the end of a long two hours. On Tuesday's season premiere, set in Boston, it was a nattily dressed fellow named Antoine who squeaked by Simon Cowell's rejection, hit one amazing note and then, despite a bit of heft, did the splits in the air.

Yell king? Former choirboy? Redirected hopeful from "So You Think You Can Dance"? We may never know. Antoine represents the long shots of these first "Idol" weeks, the hopefuls who earn a golden ticket but weren't singled out for anything else by the show's producers. Their stories aren't heartwarming enough; they don't emanate what Simon pointedly calls "it." But if this show were really a free-for-all, they could become stars.

Amadeo Diricco took on what I've called the "Manwich" role: A 28-year-old Bostonian who's eaten a lot of his mama's pasta, he shouted out a couple of verses of Muddy Waters' "Hoochie Coochie Man" and blasted his way into Hollywood. Diricco's interpretation of roots music as a rough man's game recalls Southern belters from previous seasons; Michael Sarver, meet your successor.

It's hard to say whether his ability to take the blues to the Jersey Shore will have a novelty appeal that will make it past Hollywood.

Then there was Maddy Curtis, the almost disturbingly self-possessed 16-year-old with three Down syndrome brothers and enough baby-bohemian smarts to pick Leonard Cohen's overused yet still effective "Hallelujah." I notice that her mom's blog, mommylife.net (Catholic "mother of 12 lives to write about it!"), has been put on hold, and Maddy's YouTube videos have been removed. I smell success! Yet she might fall apart the way Brooke White did during Season 7. Innocence is an attractive but dangerous trait in a would-be champion.

Tyler Grady's charming audition reminded me that no indie kid has made it far in "Idol"-land. It was nice to see a young guy minus hair gel, and then to hear him bust out some Marvin Gaye. Of course, the specter of Jason Castro lingers over any young Idol with that hazy gleam in his eye. We'll see if Grady's mellow cool can withstand the pressures of future weeks.

Beyond these standouts, Boston offered predictable fare. Justin Williams, who rubbed shoulders with winner Kris Allen during last year's Hollywood Week, was inspirational (he's a cancer survivor) and gifted and bland. Katie Stevens and Leah Laurenti had ingenue appeal but not much else. Luke Shaffer and Benjamin Bright, both promising, were smooshed together in a duet that marginalized both.

Of course, there were the horrific auditions, the ones that encourage us to laugh as Simon and his compadres crush hapless dreamers. Those never appeal to me. The night's saddest failure, however, was guest judge Victoria Beckham, who actually made plenty of appealing comments and bonded beautifully with fellow judge Kara DioGuardi but whose gaunt appearance was so off-putting it might have cost her the slot DeGeneres eventually won.

If chunky Amadeo got through and Posh ultimately didn't, perhaps that means "Idol" is sending a genuinely new message to star-struck America: Healthy is the new hot!

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